Voles, Moles and Shrews, Oh what shall I do!

At least we can say the March came in like a lion… However, I am still finding it very hard to believe that the worst of our New England winter is over. I know what you are going to say, “What winter?” In my lifetime I cannot remember having this little snow and such warm sunny days. The lack of snow this winter, however, has definitely put a crimp in my winter tracking activities. It has also provided a little bit more of a challenge, and well, challenge can be fun! That said I am looking forward to some winter tracking this weekend!

A wintery day on Beaver Brook Meadow

A couple of weeks ago I went on a “varmint” hunt. Given the lack of snow and some spring “melt,” if you can call it that, I figured I had a fairly good chance of finding sign of some ground-burrowing critters. I started by looking under hanging garden plants and turning over boards or other fixed objects in our back yard. Bingo!

What did I find?   Shrews!   Shrews have been called a lot of things but I think that Sudbury Valley Trustees described them best as “tiny tigers.” They have sharp, spike-like teeth and as the smallest mammal no bigger than our thumb (2 to 4 inches), these creatures spend most of their time running around in above-surface tunnels hunting a variety of bugs and earthworms. They will also eat other shrews, mice, salamanders, snakes and have even been known to kill small rabbits! They may also eat mast, seeds or eggs. Shrews will even cover their “kill” with grass or leaves for a later meal (just like my cats try to do with their food bowls). The shrew does not have grinding teeth and the tips of their teeth have a yellowish color when living, at least in New England.

Skull of a Short-tailed Shrew
Northern Short-tailed Shrew

Their size often allows them to escape our attention even though they are fairly common. They, like other ground-dwelling varmints such as mice, voles and moles are considerably active throughout the winter.

New England Vole

How do you know if you have shrews, rather than one of the other rodents? That is, other than seeing them. Shrews, being the smallest mammal also make the smallest hole (1 inch or less). They do not make meandering ridges just under the surface of the ground under snow like voles or moles or create 6 inch round entrance mounds like moles. If I were to catch one, I would find that each front foot of a shrew has 5 toes, where a mouse would only have 4 front toes.

Shew runway along the base of my garden wall

Behaviorally, shrews and voles are much alike. They both make tunnels or pathways in the grass and these runways can be difficult to discern from each other, especially since they will use another animals’ highway complex.

Traditional Shrew Runway in one of my back gardens

The difference is often the size. Shrew pathways which can be located in grass or leaf litter are usually less than an inch in diameter, whereas vole tunnels are slightly larger and usually only in grass. They also landscape their tunnels differently. Voles nip or cut the vegetation on the sides and bottom of their tunnels, sometimes leaving only bare earth. Shrews are less fastidious and the grass will often just be plowed to the side.

Interestingly, shrews are known to have a putrid, musky odor that makes them unpalatable to predators, so usually the only time they are found is after they have met their fate and been abandoned. BTW this is how I knew I had a good chance of finding them in my back yard… Either the fox or a neighborhood cat had clued me in. It is generally believed that the odor is a reproductive marker as it appears stronger during mating. Some shrews that we will find here in Massachusetts include the short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda), least shrew (Cryptotis parva) and the masked shrew (Sorex cinereus).

Shrews are unusual among mammals in a number of respects. They are one of only two land mammals known to echolocate (the other is a mammal from Madagascar that resembles a hedgehog). Unlike most mammals, however, some species of shrew are venomous. Shrew venom is not conducted into the wound by fangs, but by grooves in the teeth. The venom contains various compounds, and the contents of the venom glands of the American short-tailed shrew are sufficient to kill 200 mice if delivered by intravenous injection. Don’t worry though, it won’t kill a human, but it may cause some swelling. Always best not to handle a live shrew without some protection. Just in case you were thinking about going homicidal on your backyard shrews, think again. Like every other living thing on the planet there is always hidden utility. Shrew venom has potential medical use, as one chemical extracted from shrew venom has been demonstrated to show potential for the treatment of blood pressure. Another compound may be useful in the treatment of some neuromuscular diseases and migraines. The saliva of the Northern Short-tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) contains the peptide soricidin and has accordingly been studied for use in treating ovarian cancer. Another interesting factoid…Amazingly, shrews hold nearly 10% of their mass in their brain, which is the highest brain to body mass ratio of all animals (humans included!)

Star Nose Mole often found near wetland areas

Now moles,on the other hand, are just plain funky! The most common foods moles eat include earthworms, insect larva and other soil arthropods. They also eat grubs and plant bulbs but not as voraciously as the vole does. Most mole damage is caused by tunneling in our monotypic lawn, and not by eating plants. Go Moles!!! The most commonly encountered moles are the eastern mole, which causes most of the damage found in yards, and the star-nosed mole, which is mostly found digging tunnels in swampy areas and at deeper levels than the eastern mole. Mole feeding tunnels are usually 2 to 3 inches below the surface.


Okay, right about now you are thinking that I am absolutely insane because I am happy that I have rodents! Probably true. If they were in my house I would be at Agway right now looking at all kinds of unique ways to remove them from my abode. But what their presence in my yard, and especially in my garden, tells me is that my organic gardening practices are working. I attempt to provide a variety of plants for a variety of native insects. I do not use chemicals or fertilizer formulations other than compost tea or a nature-based organic nutrient source. I leave my leaves and plant structure throughout the winter to provide overwintering area and a food source for the critters. The presence of the shrew means that my garden is beginning to function as a miniature ecosystem with a natural balance of both predator and prey, which on a cold snowy day makes me smile.

Portrait of the Oak

It’s been a while since my last post which I will write off to the “holiday hustle and bustle.” In actuality, this entry was started the day before the October snow storm which left our household with no power for an entire week. Yes, I know that is three months earlier! That, followed by getting ready for the holidays, I just couldn’t seem to get back to things as intended (we won’t even go into that I spent most of my Christmas holiday break in bed!). Hopefully, now that the holidays are behind me I can get back to a more frequent (at least monthly) writing and posting schedule.

This time of year, I often find myself thinking about northeastern forests and their benefit to wildlife. One of the reasons for this is because all of the colorful broad leaf deciduous (BLD) trees such as maple and birch have dropped their leaves, leaving the oak (and sometimes the pole-size beech trees) as the only real frequent non-coniferous contributor to color in the landscape. During the growing season the oak is usually easily over-looked. The reason it has a tendency to stand out is that it will generally hold onto its leaves much longer, often until spring. Oaks are easily identified by the common russet brown color which is a result of a natural organic compound called tannin. Once chlorophyll production ceases in the late fall, the dominance of tannin results in the characteristic brown color.  The remnant coloration makes it easy to discern this tree and also provides a great opportunity for one to learn it’s branching structure and form and to recognize its preferred habitat.

Now, don’t get me wrong most oaks (Quercus spp.) are still considered largely deciduous and do drop their leaves (which is called abscission by the way) – they just do it later. This condition of retaining dead leaves through the winter months is known as marcescence and the reason for it is commonly debated. Physiologically speaking the leaves are retained because the base of the petiole (how many of you remember your grade school botany?) retains living tissue throughout the winter. Michael Snyder, a Chittenden VT County Forester, provides an excellent summary of the varied hypotheses for the possible benefits of  marcescence in his Northern Woodlands “Woods Wise” column. Some of the theories he highlights include colonizing adaption for nutrient poor sites; a “pulse” of nutrients and mulch for the soil when it is needed most, in the spring rather than in the fall; a physical adaption to trap snow, and therefore moisture, for the root system; a way to insulate buds and new twigs over the winter from drying winter winds or to protect them from animal browse, especially voracious moose and deer. These all seem realistic and have some basis in rational scientific documentation.  Others I have heard include the relationship between acorn/nut production, both from an ecological habitat perspective (camouflage roosting/foraging for birds and small mammals) and that of species propagation. These last two appear to be somewhat common-sense driven but anecdotal so in the end the take home message is we just don’t know.

Oaks are a member of the beech tree Family (Fagaceae) and are long-lived trees. Five-hundress years is somewhat common in northern old-growth forests. In their initial years of life they will grow very slowly. I have seen oak seedlings completely browsed to nothing for several years in a row. A mature oak will produce its first good seed crop when it is 40-50 years old (imagine if we had to wait until we were that old to reproduce…) and annual acorn production varies, with trees sometimes producing very few in a given year. Large numbers of acorns are produced intermittently in what are known as “mast years,” often at intervals of three to five years.

Oak Mast aka Acorns

Especially in colder climes mammals that do not hibernate will rely on mast-producing trees as a source of necessary protein. Great, wildlife need nuts, but what does that have to do with us? It is important to recognize that the cyclic nature of mast production affects not just wildlife but the entire ecological system and every critter in it. As recently pointed out in a December 3, 2011 New York Times article the obvious shortage of acorns during the coldest winter months could result in severe population-level losses of small rodents and other mammals  which are commonly host to Lyme Disease carrying ticks. A reduction in host organisms will leave these blood-sucking insects looking for an alternate source of food (namely us).

Adult Deer Tick

This is just another example of how every living creature in the natural environment (us included) is intricately linked.

If you would ask me or any other biologist what the best tree species to plant for overall wildlife habitat purposes is, the answer you will likely get 9 out of 10 times is Oak. But why is that? One of the key aspects of any habitat management regime is to provide a healthy diversity of resources, including trees, so why do so many biologists and ecologists weigh in so heavily for one type of tree? (Hang onto this thought as it is likely that a future posting will revisit this when I discuss Forestry Management.) One critical reason is documented by a favorite researcher of mine, University of Delaware’s Doug Tallamy. It is the oak’s ecological contribution when it comes to supporting insect herbivores such as moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera). These winged creatures are the base of the food chain and are therefore critical for maintaining a healthy diversity of wildlife. In my eyes it’s the “best bang for the buck” approach. His research has demonstrated that the number one ranking woody host plant is, you guessed it, the oak (Genus Quercus). This tree alone provides host insect habitat for 532 species of native insects.

Oak Gall (egg case)

The next closest host is the Genus Prunus (cherry, chokecherry, plum, peach) which is documented to support 456 native insect species.

Fungi are Fun

This entry I thought I would write about something that usually gets little, if any, recognition or consideration in the environment. It is also what I prefer on my pizza, ‘shrooms.

Fairy Stool (Coltricia cinnamonmea)

Over the past few weeks the steadily cooler weather and the frequent rainfall has created conditions conducive for quite a variety of them. Within are some of the colorful varieties I was able to find out and about our town.

Horsehair Mushroom (Marasmius rotula)

Recently I was able to attend an Audubon workshop on fungi led by Larry Millman, the author of “Fascinating Fungi of New England.” Who knew that fungi could be so fun? His book provides a wonderful learning tool for mushrooms with very detailed drawings and sometimes humerous text to boot. His enthusiasm in the field is contagious. If you get the opportunity to participate in such a workshop in the future I highly recommend it.

So what is a mushroom? Most people, if asked to identify what a mushroom is, will say that they are “Fungi.”If further asked to clarify they usually will say Fungi are “plants.”  Well, most people would be wrong. But if you are one of those that have experience in brewing your own adult beverage, you might make the connection between your yeast and other fleshy organisms including mold, rust, mildew and, you got it, mushrooms. Fungi are in a Kingdom all of their own and have much more in common with animal (us) than vegetable. What is the difference? Plants make their own food through photosynthesis but mushrooms get their nourishment from organic material in the environment, just like us.

Gills of Horsehair Mushroom
Golden Spindle (Clavulinopsis fusiformis)

Structurally their cells are also very similar to ours. What we commonly see above ground and call a mushroom is just one half of the organism (it’s fruiting body). Below ground are little hair-like parts called Hyphae which form a Mycelium where most of the real work occurs. It is here that the organism produces and secretes the enzymes that break down its chosen food source into digestible carbs, proteins and lipids. Similarly, the organic material that mushrooms eat do not need to be alive. They will feed on living as well as dead or dying tissue. So, mushrooms are not vegetarian. But do vegetarians eat mushrooms? I will have to ask one of my vegan friends about that one.

Like everything in the ecological system fungi have not evolved in a vacuum. They have developed very specific relationships with certain types of organic materials. This usually means specific tree or plant species or group of species’, dead or alive.  Some behave in a beneficial symbiotic way with a living host and others are parasitic (think chestnut blight or Dutch elm disease). However, fungi are important nonetheless.

The result of this organism’s recycling process is what contributes to the development of our thick New England soil, which in turn is what establishes the base of the pyramid for everything our animal food chain is based upon. Fungi are key in the decomposition process of woody debris.

Rusty-gilled Polypore (Gloeopyllum separium)

The identification of mushrooms is quite tricky and I don’t think I will ever have the patience for conclusive identification. That means no forest-foraging for me as, in many cases, you only get one chance to be right (or wrong). Colors are quite variable and positive identification of a mushroom can come down to the most minute of physical differences. For example this beautiful white specimen below appears to be the “Destroying Angel,” possibly one of the most toxic mushrooms in the world. It is usually found growing around live oaks. This one i found in a mixed oak-pine woodland area.

Destroying Angel (Amanita bisporigera)

Many mushroom names can tell you something about their habit or may assist in identification. Others provide interesting folklore. For example the Fly Agaric is believed to stun flies if you put it into a bowl of milk.

Yellow Russula spp.
painted suillus (Suillus pictus)

Many mushrooms will change color or become “grey” with age, much like us. Their color is brightest when new, such as some of the specimens below which I photographed at a forest in Lincoln MA.

Purple Russula spp.

Some grow on live or dead wood like the polypores, others have stems with bulbs and emerge from the ground. Some will grow at the base of trees or occur in concentrated “colonies.”

Some are just downright strange!

Crown-tipped Coral (Artomyces pyxidata)
Yellow Patches Amanita (Amanita flavoconia)
Stinkhorn (Phallus rubicundus)

Responsible Gardening and A Rare Lecture Opportunity

If you have read my previous posts, then you know of my personal war with one of several invasive and non-native plant or animal species in my backyard here in Chelmsford. I would like to think that I am not alone in this endeavor, either locally or regionally. So far I am not disappointed by my on-line excursions.

If you are interested in gardening for wildlife, butterfly gardens, plant or wildlife ecology or are just beginning to develop an inkling of interest in this topic I strongly recommend you take advantage of a rare opportunity to hear one of my top-list authors and a well respected scientist, Doug Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants)  lecture this Wednesday night (October 5, 2011) in Carlisle, MA.  The event is being sponsored by the Carlisle Conservation Foundation, Susan Zielinski Natural Science Fund, and Carlisle Conservation Commission and will begin at 7 pm at Corey Auditorium in the Carlisle Public School.

As many gardeners undoubtedly do, I use my garden as an expression of what is attractive to me as an individual. Also, as I have a strong interest in nature and ecology I seek to do the right thing while expressing myself in this artistic way. I want what I put in my garden to function in sync with the natural environment. Mr. Tallamy who is also a renowned entomologist (insect ecologist) at University of Delaware provides abundant scientific documentation to support that alien plant introductions generally do not have a productive ecological relationship with our environment. This is because they often have different characteristics such as leaf chemistry, time to maturity, or time to bud and flower. What this means is even though they are phisically present in our natural environment, they are not contributing or giving back energy to the system the way a native plant would (just taking it away).

We, as gardeners, do have a choice. Now, more than ever before native alternatives to invasive horticultural varieties can be found.  However, if you are not familiar with the horticulture trade or with these alternatives, it is easy to be overwhelmed and led in the wrong direction by a well-intentioned nursery worker, or even, a less than well-meaning individual who just wants to make money.

Hybrid variety of a native columbine species

For example, not all native plants are created equal. Some so-called native plants are actually naturalized alien plants from other countries.

Alien and Introduced Queen Anne's Lace - Invasive in some New England States

Some nurseries will push these plants as “native” or alternatives to invasive plants. Some plants are cultivar varieties (genetically altered) of our natives which may not possess identical or even similar traits to the native variety, depending upon what it was “crossed” with.

These plants will often be touted in their descriptions as “pest tolerant,” “a caterpillar may eat the foliage occasionally,” “deer resistant,” “disease free,” “mostly allergy free,” good for naturalizing, etc. What a description like this tells me is that the plant does not possess a substantial ecological benefit and it is not contributing much in terms of food to native insects, which are the base of our regional food chain. Any of the descriptions I listed above would be a BIG “red flag” in my book.

As an example, a lot of the statements above will often be found if you search for traits of the common butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii or Buddleia x weyeriana). Now, you are saying wait a minute, isn’t the butterfly bush good because it attracts butterflies? Well let me, and some of my favorite online sources, enlighten you. The butterfly bush is a butterfly magnet and I can often find many butterflies on it during the summer season where they seek the very abundant and nectar-rich flowers which bloom almost constantly from spring to fall. Tallamy’s research shows “not one species of butterfly in North America can use Buddleia as a larval host plant.” In particular, a large number of butterfly species are very plant-specific and will only use 1 or 2 plant types to deposit their eggs and provide food for their hatching larvae (think milkweed and the monarch butterfly folks). Without the presence of a particular plant, you cannot have a particular butterfly. Therefore, without larval host plants you cannot have any butterflies. Taken to the next logical step, if everyone is following horticulture and nursery recommendations to create a butterfly garden with the butterfly bush as its anchor plant, butterfly diversity (number and variety of butterfly species) will undoubtedly continue to decline as we raze additional natural land to build even larger suburban homes and replace these sites with sterile turf lawns.

Alien and Invasive Butterfly Bush - Buddlei Davidii

Now, here’s another little tidbit for you. The butterfly bush is considered invasive in over 25 North American states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island – that is if you go by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Plants Database. I can honestly say that I personally have not had any experience with this plant’s invasive tendencies but I have heard of other wetland scientists that have. It is not currently listed on our Massachusetts Prohibited Plant list and it also has not been evaluated (as far as I know) for noxious tendencies by the Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory Group. Other organizations, including the National Park Service, Audubon, and other state and governmental organizations have it on their “Invasive Watch List,” or have outright banned the sale of the plant. It is considered prolifically invasive in Zones 6 and 7 (Mid-Atlantic States such as PA and VA) as well as the Northwest.  It is on the “Most Invasive” species list of the Pacific Northwest Exotic Pest Plant Council. In this region it is extremely invasive in disturbed natural areas such as burn sites and along large streams such as the Willamette River. It has been a huge problem in England, where it is considered one of the top 20 noxious weeds, infesting large tracts of disturbed land 50 years after it was introduced in those areas.

USDA Plants Database - Buddleia Invasive Representation in U.S.

You see every plant has a niche or a microhabitat which it prefers. I for one am not completely knowledgeable about this plant and what its preferred microhabitat may look like (I am NOT a botanist). But I can hazard some broad assumptions (thinking aloud folks…don’t read in more than that) based upon its noxious nature elsewhere.

For example it appears to respond well to fluctuating wet environments where it spreads predominantly by very abundant seedlings. It likes riparian corridors and floodplains, especially such sites that have experienced some level of disturbance. The fact that it likes burn sites AND wet areas could reveal an interesting relationship with nutrient cycling on low pH sites (cold, wet or acidic sites) or the timing of availability of elements critical for plant growth following a disturbance (Nitrogen or Phosphorus).  For example inorganic Nitrogen can be made available through bacterial fixation following a burn event and is often considered a valuable post-fire nutrient source. Another byproduct of fire to consider might be potash (Potassium in a water-soluble form)  The time it took to infest U.K. sites makes me wonder how long the seeds remain viable in the seed bank once they are deposited there?

Research on the Buddleia problem in the U.K. by Oregon State University has revealed that seeds from the plant require a long time to develop and release from the plant. Similarly, U.K. researchers have discovered that flower heads from a previous summer do not release seed until dry weather occurs the following spring. This could be very useful information. It is also possible that climate fluctuations or microclimate condition is sigificant. For example, does PA or VA normally have a dry spring (did we in MA have a dry spring in 2010)? In addition, practical application of this info suggests that pruning all of the spent blossoms from the butterfly bushes in the fall prior to full development of the seed could potentially limit release of the seed to native environments (possibly a best management practice?). Well at this point I am starting to ramble and very loosely hypothesizing with nothing to back it up. Needless to say, I have begun removing the butterfly bush from my gardens.

I think that Carole Sevilla-Brown in her Ecosystem Gardening Blog says it best. We have been down this road before with many of our currently-listed and most noxious invasive plants. She highlights the Bradford pear, purple loosestrife, and multi-flora rose. These are just a drop in the proverbial plant bucket. It is pretty clear that the Horticulture Trade has not learned from past mistakes. The industry’s on-going attempt to create a sterile form of butterfly bush is like déjà vu of the failed attempts at purple loosestrife sterility. If we don’t learn from our past mistakes we will be doomed to repeat them over, and over, and over again. Gee, even the mouse in the maze learns from repetition and will eventually find the cheese…

Anyway, if you have an interest and are able to find time to attend Tallamy’s lecture in Carlisle, I hope to see you there.

Battle of Wills with a Non-native Plant

Looking off of my back deck today, it hit me yet again that fall is truly here as you can see by the picture to the right.  But that is not what this entry is about – I just had to share the fall colors.

Beaver Brook Meadow Foliage 2011

The other thing I noticed about this view and have continued to notice all summer was the absence of bright purple spiked flowers where there was such an abundance of them last year, as seen in the picture below to the left. I am not talking about the purple in the foreground which is actually one of one of my butterfly gardens, but the faint purple flowers visible in the background. Now, before you get me wrong this is not a bad thing. For my first two years here in the early summer my neighbors have seen me fiendishly pulling plants from the wetland, probably thinking that I either really dislike the color purple or otherwise have way too much time on my hands. Neither is the case.

Purple Loosestrife Meadow Buffer
Purple Loosestrife at Pond Buffer

The plant known commonly as purple loosestrife is an alien introduction from Europe, a 200 year-old escapee from the horticultural garden trade. As beautiful as it seems, it is far from ecologically benign. The species is just one of hundreds of introduced noxious plants that affect the physical and chemical character of our environment. Due to media coverage most people know that this plant is “bad” but don’t really understand the reasons behind that conclusion. In brief summary, when purple loosestrife aggressively moves into a wetland area (it likes wet feet) it changes the physical community by crowding out our native plants such as sedges, rushes and ferns. The plant has a very deep tap-root that allows it to quickly establish, giving it a significant advantage over native plants in instances of ground disturbance and over seedlings in the spring. This in turn effects preferable food sources and host breeding or nesting sites for many wildlife species including the marsh wren and the federally-listed endangered bog turtle. As it possesses a different scheduled life-cycle than our native plants it decomposes quickly in the fall (rather than in the early spring) which in turn alters the level of nutrients in the soil (Phosphorus), ultimately affecting the population balance of those little beneficial insect critters that are responsible for decomposition of plant material. All of these domino-like impacts change how the entire system biologically and chemically functions. Then, because it is negative and we are human, we compound the injury by spending hundreds of billions of tax dollars for repeated application of generally toxic herbicides (that wonderful tap-root also allows it to recover from herbicide application) that can’t discern between purple loosestrife and a native plant.  I sometimes equate it in my mind to an ecological pandemic.

So, you are probably asking yourself if it is so difficult to get rid of the plant what happened this year? Good question. Below, are pictures of that same buffer this summer. One of the very many reasons introduced plants from other geographical areas do so well in new locations is that the environment has not had enough time to evolve to provide the necessary check and balance, a natural enemy. I will talk more about this in one of my next posts. In an effort to jump-start this evolutionary process many state management agencies have brought in their own – enter the Galerucella spp. beetle, the devoted enemy of purple loosestrife in its homeland.

Mostly Absent Loosestrife 2011
Mostly Absent Loosestrife 2011
Galerucella Beetle Photo Credit: Donna Ellis UCONN

You see this little, very hungry, beetle has found its way here to Beaver Brook meadow from other experimental releases including one at the Chelmsford Conservation Land Trust Archer Meadowbrook Preserve. As a result, this mostly stunted, defoliated condition relects what the purple loosestrife looked like this summer (though I would like to give my hard work repeatedly pulling up plants before they flower some credit too, even if its not truly deserved).

Galerucella Beetle Damage 2011

Because of the damage caused by this leaf-eating beetle, many of the loosestrife plants were shorter than normal and never flowered thus making it much easier for me to remove the above-ground parts. Like I have done for the past 2 years I have removed the invader and replaced it with native selections such as joe-pye weed, swamp milkweed, boneset, sensitive fern, buttonbush, and sweet pepper-bush. If the pattern here is similar to other beetle introduction sites in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the beetle damage is just temporary. When the hungry critters have devoured so much of the loosestrife plant community that it can no longer maintain the current beetle population, the insects will move on to more densely-packed feeding areas in Chelmsford, or in neighboring towns. This will allow the plant an opportunity to rebound, but hopefully at a lower density than that which previously existed. But I am not worried, because little does this plant know I will be one step ahead of it and I am really STUBBORN.

By the Light of the Harvest Moon

Over the past week if you were fortunate enough to be outside after sunset and not get thoroughly eaten alive by vampiric winged creatures you may have observed the fiery red disc of the September “Harvest Moon.”  Traditionally, the Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the Autumnal Equinox and more often than not it falls in the month of September. As the name implies it normally occurs during the peak agricultural harvest. It is also somewhat unique in that the time difference between moonrise on successive evenings around the equinox is shorter than usual (almost by half). Consequently, there is no long period of darkness between sunset and moonrise. This also applies to the October full moon which is often called the “Hunter’s Moon.”

Photo Credit: Ruth Daniel

Before the technological age of calendars, moon phases were used to track time including when to harvest crops and when to set trap-lines in preparation for the long winter ahead. Farmers in the Northern Hemisphere would look forward to the moonrise at this time of the year because it provided more evening light after sunset in which to engage in winter preparation activities.

Part of the Harvest Moon’s mystique is that it seems bigger and more colorful than other full moons. But, what appears to be a larger than normal size, is really just a trick of the eye as a result of the moon’s low-lying stature in the sky. The color is also just an illusion created by the atmospheric particles the light is being viewed through while the moon is lower on the horizon.

Photo Credit: David Haworth

I always find the rise of the Harvest Moon somewhat bittersweet.  On one hand I look forward to deep blue skies with warm afternoons which sometimes seem to instantaneously blend into chilled starlit nights and mist-filled morning meadows. I also revel in the smell of oak leaves as they rustle in the fall breeze or on the path under my feet. On the other hand, I become saddened by the disappearance of the flitting hummingbirds and the migrant birds I have become so accustom to. Silence now replaces the frequent vocalization of the predatory hawk and great blue heron, the song of the Eastern oriole and the squawk of the red-winged blackbird. This is when I acknowledge that too soon everything will again be buried under a cold blanket of snow. Even then I am still enamored by this time of year in New England and wouldn’t trade it for all of the sun and sand in the world. So, take into consideration the lyrics from folk/rock artist Neil Young and make some time to “go out and feel the night.”

But there’s a full moon risin’
Let’s go dancin’ in the light
We know where the music’s playin’
Let’s go out and feel the night.

– Harvest Moon by Neil Young

My Unusually-Colored Summer Garden Guest

What the... An orange spring peeper?

As most gardeners do, I find it a spiritual experience to play amongst my garden beds and flowers. Imagine my surprise the other day when I saw what appeared to be an orange poison dart frog in my butterfly garden. Come again? Okay, not really a tropical rainforest tree frog, but the resemblance was a bit striking, right down to its little sticky toe pads. With an email to a few herpetologist friends I was able to confirm that what I had was indeed an orange spring peeper. The coloration is a bit unusual, but apparently not unheard of. It seems that the peeper has a chameleon-like ability similar to that of the grey tree frog that does allow it to darken or lighten, depending on its mood or its surroundings. Orange varieties do seem to be more common further south (VA and NC).

The Northern Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) is a small chorus frog found throughout the eastern USA and Canada. The peepers that we usually find here in Chelmsford MA  are often some shade of tan/brown or grey in color, sometimes with a dark cross on their back (from which the latin name “crucifer” is obtained).  They are usually very small, between 1″ or 1.5″ and compare in size from a nickel to slightly larger than a quarter (females are usually the larger of the two).

Northern Spring Peeper USGS Photo by Brad Glorioso

When I have a severe case of the winter blues and the first crocuses are just beginning to break ground, it is this critter that I truly yearn to hear. On the first warm rainy evening (if you can in your right mind call mid-40 F warm) as the last remnant of snow and ice is disappearing from the wetland edge, the male peepers come a-calling. I can usually be found up to my knees in cold (VERY cold – brrrrr)  water, head lamp on and camera in tow. As they are nocturnal and of minute size they are more often heard than seen. See and hear a video of a Calling Peeper by J. LeClere at HerpNet.net

Some interesting peeper factoids:

  • Only the male of the species calls and it does so by pushing air out of and drawing it back into a sac on its throat.
  • Spring Peepers produce glucose (sugar) in their liver that functions as an anti-freeze to keep their key organs from freezing.
  • Other body parts, such as their appendages, may form ice crystals and freeze and they will while away the winter in this partly frozen state under soil, leaves or logs.
  • They spend the majority of their time on land as carnivorous insect eaters, but do require water (normally shallow wetlands or ephemeral pools) to reproduce.

Unfortunately, most amphibians including frogs are experiencing catastrophic declines world-wide that have biologists significantly concerned. The reasons are not fully understood but major contributors are believed to include disease; habitat destruction, modification or fragmentation; pollution; pesticide use; introduced predators; and climate change. This should be a concern to us all as amphibians are very directly sensitive to external environmental parameters and often considered indicator species (“the canary in the coal mine” so to speak) that directly reflect the quality of our overall environment. Maybe this will be a subject of a future blog…

For more information on these wonderful critters visit these links:

Vernal Pool Association

Rhode Island Vernal Pools

MA DF&W Natural Heritage

UMASS Amherst Natural Resources

Welcome to Turtles Crossing

It is  summer in the northern hemisphere and I, like the turtles, am basking in the bright glow of the sun’s warm rays. As I move wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of compost and wood chips from one side of my deceptively large yard to the other, I try to focus on my overarching vision and forget the rivulets of sweat rolling down my neck and back and the endless buzzing sound of mosquitoes in my ears. I am busy expanding my continuously growing hummingbird and pollinator gardens. You see, the outdoors and everything within it are a passion of mine. Another of my interests is learning, so whenever I can combine this with something dear to me it is a real treat! I so envy educators because they always seem to find the best way to share their enthusiasm and what they know with other people in a fun and informative way. I often find it is easier said than done…

So with the lazy days of summer almost a memory, it seems like a great time for the birth of this blog. What you don’t know is that anyone who knows me fairly well is laughing their #@%! off right now, because there is usually not more than a few minutes to spare in my overly booked day to add something like a blog (oh, did I also say I was technologically illiterate and have no idea how to “create” a blog?). Well, just add blog author to the existing list of full-time mom, wife, environmental professional, church and community volunteer, and whenever I have a free-moment gardener for wildlife. That said, the objective of this effort is to be a creative outlet for me with which I can share the wonders of the natural environment with anyone who will listen and, hopefully, develop a friendly and informational forum both locally and regionally on gardening for wildlife and suburban conservation.